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Why Detroit still roots for the Lions

The Lions are a good, flawed team in young season, but win or lose matters little to a fanbase that has found other ways to sustain itself.


The Pure Michigan ad campaign has been so successful because it doesn't give you a reason to hate it. It doesn't inspire wanking motions like California's 30 seconds of smug. Michigan doesn't bill itself as "we're great," it bills itself as "we think we're great" with the implication being "we understand why you might not think so, or might not know it yet." The campaign stems from humility. It's self-aware.

So the worst you can do to it is chuckle at the obvious things that were never negated by the original message. Michigan knows it sort of sucks, but it doesn't suck in all places, all the time. Nothing does. People who go there do so for surface reasons, then stay long enough to invent and accept reasons why the place really isn't so bad. They find charm in the awful, like suburban winter and the Detroit Lions.

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Ford Field is in the middle of downtown Detroit, which feels mostly empty. There aren't enough people to properly fill the sidewalks. The buildings are pretty, hollow shells. The Fisher Building is one of the best -- an Art Deco monster with high barrel-vaulted ceilings coated in a colorful marble mosaic. Its occupancy rate is 70 percent at the moment. The building has been waiting a long time to be filled.

I was two degrees separated from the Lions growing up in Ann Arbor, one by distance and another by Michigan Football back when Michigan Football could be counted on to go 10-3 at worst. The Lions were mired in Joey Harrington and Matt Millen when I was in high school, and the only time the team was mentioned around town was in the context of how bad it was. The first hot take I ever wrote for the school paper might have been after the Lions GM insisted that one Lions player didn't have testicles. I said Millen should be fired. So did everyone, and his sniping was less a reason than a spark. The Lions were losing often.

Millen exacerbated a cultural problem, but he didn't drive Barry Sanders and Bobby Ross away. Sanders retired suddenly after the 1998 season though he was within a shout of becoming the NFL's all-time leading rusher. Ross left his head coaching post in the midst of the 2000 season. Both cited Detroit's culture of losing on their way out. Separate from one another, both men left the team having made playoff appearances in half their seasons with the team. The Lions have gone to the postseason exactly once in the 14 years since Ross resigned.

The astonishing thing is that fans have never fled. Detroit is still trying to get businesses in its buildings, but it can get fans in its stands. During the 2008 0-16 campaign Ford Field attendance still hovered around 83 percent, or roughly what the 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers averaged at seven wins. When fans wanted Jim Schwartz's head last season, capacity was at 99 percent.

You could say there's nothing to do there, and that's true to an extent. The suburbs around the Detroit have plenty of wealth, but it isn't going into anything a real bon vivant would want. You can only get anywhere by car, and roadsides are mostly chain stores and car dealerships. A lot of the best restaurants are in Marriott lobbies. Mostly, Metro Detroit is a lot of really nice nothing.

But people are happy there, so the sentiments of Pure Michigan ring as genuine. There's solidarity in crappiness. A pair of young t-shirt entrepreneurs made a mint off the phrase "Detroit Hustles Harder," which capitalized on a people that readily flaunts their altruism. They're the same people that ate up Clint Eastwood growling about the auto industry in a Super Bowl commercial.

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The 4-2 Lions enter late in this story because they're not really all that important to it. There are a lot of great things to say about them. The defense is top shelf, led by a remarkable defensive line and an underappreciated campaign from linebacker DeAndre Levy. A talented offense lays dormant, and if it wakes up the Lions might emerge as one of the best teams in the NFL. But the Lions' ascent wouldn't be the system shock you might expect. It's not like Detroit has never won. The Red Wings and Pistons have enough recent titles to hold fans. The Tigers can't help falling on their face in the postseason, but at least they get there.

The cynic assumes this year's Lions team will disappoint, just as it did last year when it was poised to win the NFC North and stumbled, but that doesn't matter much. Rooting for the Lions is akin to rooting for Detroit itself -- like love for a sick puppy that you hope will recover. On the surface it's sort of sad, but the people there have been content for decades to participate in what has thus far been a noble delusion.